Episode 1: Zahra Billoo

It’s finally here! The first episode of Rockwood’s new podcast, with alum and CAIR SF-BA Executive Director Zahra Billoo. Zahra dropped by our offices to talk about joy, family, privilege, music, practicing resilience, and much, much more.

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joi foley: Hi, and welcome to the very first episode of Rockwood’s Leading From The Inside Out podcast. My name is joi foley. I’m Rockwood’s senior marketing and communications manager.

joi foley: Before we get to our interview with alum Zahra Billoo, we have just a few notes about the podcast. This is Rockwood’s first-ever podcast, and we are so excited to be sharing leadership with new audiences in this new medium but, as with anything new, we do have a bit of a learning curve. There are some technical issues, so we hope that you can be understanding and patient with us as we work through some of that. I’ll be your host for these first few episodes, and then the whole staff of Rockwood will be sharing hosting duties, including our CEO, Darlene Nipper. We will also be experimenting with different types of content alongside the alum interviews, so if there’s something you’d like Rockwood to cover in this podcast, just let us know. With that, here’s our show.

joi foley: Our guest for today’s episode is alum Zahra Billoo. Zahra is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area office, the oldest and one of the largest CAIR chapter offices. Under Zahra’s leadership, CAIR-SFBA has filed lawsuits against the United States Department of Justice, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Southwest Airlines representing American Muslims facing discriminatory treatment. CAIR-SFBA has also significantly expanded its capabilities to provide know-your-rights sessions on a nearly weekly basis to mosques and community members in the San Francisco Bay Area while also providing direct legal representation to Bay Area residents facing numerous civil rights violations.

joi foley: Zahra has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and even on Fox News. She was a speaker at the historic Women’s March in Washington, DC in January 2017. Zahra received the 2017 Human Rights Award from the Society of American Law Teachers and was featured in the January 2018 Chronicle of Philanthropy cover story on how millennials lead. Outside of her work with CAIR, Zahra bakes birthday cakes for foster children through Cake4Kids and is a coordinator for Project Feed, a monthly homeless feeding effort in downtown San Francisco. Zahra is currently in Rockwood’s Lead Now California Fellowship, but she’s been through a few fellowships and programs with us. When I spoke with Zahra in February at our office in Oakland, our conversation started there.

joi foley: Okay, so the first question is you’ve been through two Rockwood Fellowships, but you’ve been total eight sessions, we counted, so why do you keep returning to Rockwood?

Zahra Billoo: I was initially introduced to Rockwood by other leaders who said, “Look, we see the path that you’re going down, and we know that you’re going to need help to sustain yourself and the work that you’re doing in the long run. Why don’t you check out Rockwood?” That was my first introduction to The Art of Leadership. After that, I was invited to join a Fellowship, and what I appreciated about the opportunity to do a Fellowship was that it wasn’t just training. It was training plus community, and so the relationships, the friendships that I made in my participation during Fellowship for a New California are still people I rely on, I call, and that I’m excited to see when I’m at events and out doing this work.

Zahra Billoo: Fast-forward several years, and we have the 2016 election. It’s not like civil rights and human rights weren’t already challenging before the 2016 election, but the problems became so much more exaggerated. So much of the deep-rooted racism and white supremacy in our country was unveiled, and the pace at which many of us that were already in the work had to change to was just unprecedented. When the opportunity to do another Fellowship and meet new people doing this work in this moment and relearn some of the Rockwood practices came about, I couldn’t say no. Just a couple of days ago when I was thinking through how to process a trigger, I was so grateful for all of the training that I’ve done with Rockwood now.

joi foley: Do you have any favorite memories of any of your Rockwood experiences or moments that were really important to you?

Zahra Billoo: I remember one of the nights of the Fellowship parties where there was a particular one in the second, in the Lead Now Fellowship, where everybody just let loose. Whether people were drinking or not, and I don’t drink, they were having a good time. They were talking. They were in community. It was interesting because I remember having a conversation with someone about life while dating as a single Muslim woman and also having a conversation with someone about gender pay equity and then breaking a sweat on the dance floor. That combination of experiences in one night, for me, was so much the epitome of the family that Rockwood helps cultivate where we can talk about work and life and have fun.

joi foley: Why were you born for this time?

Zahra Billoo: I sometimes contemplate why I was born with as much privilege as I was born with. I didn’t necessarily earn the rights that I have. They are a function of where I was born, who I was born to, and those circumstances. I’m a US citizen who speaks English fluently and has a passport so can’t be sent anywhere I don’t want to go. I’ve got a voice that sometimes won’t shut up and a roof over my head as well as incredibly supportive family. When I think of why I was born for this moment, for me, it’s about putting all of those privileges to work. I didn’t earn them, and so the best that I can do is ensure that I don’t act like they are mine exclusively but rather that they are tools and an opportunity for service, and now is when we need it.

joi foley: What’s in your heart?

Zahra Billoo: I think what my heart is trying to figure out is how does one find happiness, and peace, and contentment, and companionship in this moment where there’s literally a rapid-fire every day. Maybe they existed before, but it’s also the onslaught of social media and the 20-minute news cycle that has us going a mile a minute, and so what does our work look like? What do our lives look like in 2030 and in 2040 which, right now, feels frightening to even contemplate when many of us are dreading 2020?

joi foley: Yeah. Who is leading today that you’d love to work with?

Zahra Billoo: One of the blessings of the 2016 election, for me, has really been to develop new friendships in movement spaces and also to watch and support as leadership emerges in ways that we didn’t expect. If I were to think of individuals that I already know and love and want to deepen my work with, I think of so many of the women in movement spaces, Manar Waheed at ACLU, Linda Sarsour with Women’s March, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in Congress, Marielena at NILC, and so many other bold, fierce women who I’m in awe of because they make leadership accessible, they connect work to efforts to empower community, and they don’t back down.

joi foley: What message do you want to share with future generations?

Zahra Billoo: I want people to understand that this is the work of lifetimes. Realistically, I’m not sure if we will free Palestine, or end poverty, or close the prison industrial complex in my lifetime. When I think of what I want future generations to understand is that they are not alone, they are not the first, and that we did the best that we could so that they would have it better.

joi foley: Sometimes I think about, when I was younger, gay marriage seemed like it would never ever happen. Then, by the time it happened, I … it wasn’t like I wasn’t blasé about it, but I was like, “Oh, yeah, of course.” It was only a span of like 20 years or something that it-

Zahra Billoo: But gay marriage isn’t just about legislation either, right?

joi foley: Yeah.

Zahra Billoo: It’s also about the shift in the narrative around people were being criminalized for who they love. Homes were being raided. Much of that continues, and so I don’t think of the fight for equality for any people as simply about legislation but rather like, hey, every step forward is progress. I mean I remember when Ellen came out on TV and when Will & Grace was still a little bit unusual, and now it’s like they’re doing new episodes of Will & Grace, all of a sudden, after a sort of a very long hiatus. We’re seeing small steps towards progress for Palestine, for people in prisons, but what’s hard is sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back, and that’s the most heartbreaking thing.

Zahra Billoo: I think what I really struggle with is this thing that we’ve been saying since the election, which is that the system isn’t broken. Trump was not elected because the system was broken. Trump was elected because the system works exactly as it was supposed to, and so how do we, for the purposes of our lifetimes but also future generations, balance working within a system that we acknowledge to be corrupt and faulty while also attempting to build something new in parallel?

joi foley: Yeah. What has changed or shaped your leadership?

Zahra Billoo: Learning from my mistakes has always been an important way in which I acknowledge the opportunity to grow. It’s not easy to fall on your face and then have to pick right back up because it’s not like the work is done or have time to recover, but I try really hard to see challenges as opportunities for growth.

Zahra Billoo: The other thing that I would say that’s been really important is to have people who I trust that I can call for advice. That’s been, at times, board members, at times peers, people I’ve met through Rockwood, and friends in the work where I’ll call and say, “Hey, can you help me get my head on straight? This is how I’m feeling about XYZ. Is this right?” It’s not always easy to be told that you’re wrong, but to have people who can do that gently and compassionately and also confidentially is so critical because sometimes it’s also … As much as I want to embrace errors as opportunities for growth, which I believe they are, we don’t have, always, the flexibility to fail in movement spaces or in nonprofit spaces where mistakes can cost grant money or relationships or impact someone’s life individually.

joi foley: Yeah. What brings you joy?

Zahra Billoo: My nieces. I have two nieces who are three and a half and one and a half. They smile, and babble, and laugh, and make faces all while having no idea that the world is on fire outside their house. I think about doing this work for them so that they, like me, who were born as Muslim women, as girls of color in the United States with at least the comfort of US citizenship can do more and accomplish more than I could. It’s also simply the case that a child’s laughter, particularly when you don’t have to ever clean up their diapers, is so incredible. My brother calls every once in a while when the kids are being rowdy and they’ll … they know that I’m on the other side of the phone. I will drop everything to take that call. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing because they remind me that I’m doing this work for them but also that joy is possible.

joi foley: Yeah. I think that just the phrasing of joy is possible is … it’s like it’s both present and future, and you can work towards it.

Zahra Billoo: Yes, yes.

joi foley: That’s what came up for me when you said that. Other than joy, or maybe it is joy, but what’s needed now?

Zahra Billoo: I would say that what is needed now, well, there’s a long list of things, but what comes to mind for me is sustenance. A lot of people, including a lot of Rockwood alums, are operating at a pace that they haven’t before. It’s go, go, go. I lose track of how many 12-hour days I have, and that is not sustainable in the long run. What sustainability might require is more funding, more people finding careers in the movement, more people thinking about how to make this work lifestyle work, so even if you’re not in the movement, are you donating regularly? Are you going to the efforts regularly? Are you bringing joy to the lives of people who are in the movement full time to help them sustain?

Zahra Billoo: I’d say that another thing that comes to mind for me around what’s needed is high-quality work, is that there isn’t room. There should be room. I know Rockwood teaches us that there should be room for F-ups, but some F-ups are just too consequential. Some resources are too limited, and so I wonder how we train people to do high-quality, high-quantity work and reward them for that.

Zahra Billoo: The additional thing that comes to mind, for me, around what’s needed is unity. Many people in a movement will say unity is not uniformity. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we have to agree on basic human rights and civil rights for all people, and if we can’t, then get out of the way of the work. I want to see our movements be really strong. For example, it’s been really disheartening to see some of the attacks on the Women’s March, but then it’s been really powerful to see people step up and say, “Hey, we’re in this together, right? So get with it or get out of the way, and we’re going to continue to do that work.” There’s lots and lots of examples of this every day, but to ensure that we don’t play into the hands of white supremacists, or war mongers, or misogynists, or anyone else trying to break up our movements by allowing ourselves to be divided.

joi foley: Yeah. I find that a lot of my work now, my personal work, is helping my friends realize the stories that are kind of swimming around them. They can dig down to what’s true.

Zahra Billoo: That’s so true. I think about that with so many with … any time I carry a privilege and I’m hearing a conversation among my circles about a group that doesn’t have that same privilege, right? What’s one that comes up for me sometimes is I am a cisgendered heterosexual woman, and conversations about gay marriage, gay rights, trans rights, public restroom safety, any of those things, to stop those conversations sometimes and say, “Hey, let’s make sure that we’re operating from a place of empathy. Let’s make sure that we understand our privilege in this moment, and then let’s see what the most impacted people are saying,” has sometimes been the work of allyship that I can do. Similarly, people ask me sometimes, “Well, what do I say to my racist grandma?” I’m like, “Keep having conversations with her because I’m not invited to her house.”

joi foley: Yeah, and I think this ties into what we’re talking about: How do you practice resilience online and off?

Zahra Billoo: The first hate piece about me was when I was in law school, and it was because Daniel Pipes, so decades-long notorious anti-Muslim activist, had been protested at a location 400 miles away from where I was, and all I had done was send out an email encouraging people to join a protest that someone else was organizing. All of a sudden, I got credit for organizing the whole protest, and they went through my blog, and they went through my Facebook, and they went through the meeting minutes for student government meetings I had been in to put together these dossiers about me, and I didn’t even know that Twitter was around yet.

Zahra Billoo: What I learned, at that time, was a few things. One was limit what you read for your self-care, right? Look, haters going to hate. How much of that do I need to read? How much of that do I need to consume? I need to be aware, just as I am with in-person interactions and who triggers me, what the cost of these things is. Sometimes, being unaware is better than being drained. I think of people that trigger me and the resolutions I’ve made to just be like, “Your email always is harassing and bullying, and I’m just not reading it anymore because you don’t get to do that to me.” I think of that.

Zahra Billoo: Other parts that I learned around that were that it was so important that I developed my own content, that if someone wanted to know who Zahra Billoo was that the first find that they would have was not a hate monger’s website about me. That’s easier said than done with all of the SEO things that I don’t even understand.

Zahra Billoo: The last thing was that … This is going to sound a little bit ridiculous maybe. I don’t know. There is something to be said about how effective you are when the haters come for you, right? I don’t want to trivialize how terrifying it can be because it can be, right? I live in a secure apartment complex, and no one has my address, right? I have friends who have had to hire security and put up cameras, but there’s still something telling about, look, if Fox News is praising you, then you’re probably doing it all wrong. Challenging the status quo, the powers that be, and people who perpetuate oppression, for me, is not just about resilience. It’s prophetic. It’s what the leaders that I look up to did and paid a price for, but I recognize that I stand on their shoulders.

Zahra Billoo: You know, I also make regular time to hang out with friends. I eat ice cream nearly daily when I’m not dieting. If I’m dieting, I’m eating fruit-on-the-bottom Greek yogurt, but there’s still sugar because that has an impact. I go to the gym because that does things for my adrenaline. I vacation regularly. These nieces are a place that I visit, that I see, that I call, and so it’s also just important that people figure out what brings them joy and what that looks like and then prioritize that.

Zahra Billoo: I know one of the hardest things, for me, about going on vacation, for example, is how do I turn of my brain and stop checking my emails? Usually, it’s like midway through vacation by the time I have accomplished that, and then it’s over, which motivates me to plan my next one. It’s not easy to come under attack as many people are more frequently these days but, in some ways, it’s almost the cost of doing this work.

joi foley: That’s all for this episode of Rockwood’s Leading From The Inside Out podcast. Before you go, if you’re an alum of Rockwood’s programs and would like to be on this podcast, let us know. Reach out to us at rockwoodleadership.org/podcast or send me an email at J-O-I@rockwoodleadership.org. The music in this episode is by Broke for Free, available from the Free Music Archive and brokeforfree.com. From all of us here at Rockwood, thank you for joining us, and we wish you joyful leadership.

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